How (Not) to Ask for Recommendations, Referrals and References

I recently met a first-time author, who gave me a copy of their book. Shortly after, I got an email from the author’s publicist, saying:

“…We’d appreciate it if you would post your 5-star review of the book on Amazon…”


  • I don’t mind being asked to post a review of a book (though this ask was poorly done)
  • I don’t mind being asked by a publicist, as opposed to the author, if it’s done well (this was not)
  • But what frosts me is being told by a publicist what rating to assign the book – without even asking whether I’d read it, or even intended to read it.

Let’s break it down: what are the rules governing recommendations, referrals and references? And how many did the publicist violate?

How to Ask for a Favor

Rule Number One: Don’t ask for a favor – ask for the repayment of a favor already done.

The ideal way to promote your book is to start 6 months in advance by deciding whose help you’re going to want – and immediately start promoting them.  Comment on their blogposts; tweet their material; introduce them to others.

That way, when it comes time for your ask, they are simply discharging an obligation of etiquette, a favor they are more than happy to grant. (And lest this sound coldly utilitarian, note this is a description of what friends do for friends).

What’s true for books is true for referrals.  Haven’t done any favors for others lately? Then you’re going to come up short when you start trying to ask for favors.  Life is like that. Favors earned are favors granted.

Think that’s not fair? Wrong: it is very, very fair. It’s the essence of the matter.


Rule Number Two: Assume absolutely nothing.

Remember the saying, “Assume makes an ass of u and me.” Do not assume the person has the time, or the interest, or the inclination, to do you the favor you want.

In fact, make it clear you have no clue whether what you’re asking is reasonable. Say something like, “I realize this may be an inopportune time, or more complex than I realize, or there may be other reasons you can’t do this, and I assure you I don’t mean to be asking for an unnatural act on your part….”

By explicitly saying you’re not making assumptions, you give the other person all the degrees of freedom. You grant them several outs, should they choose to take them; you willfully give up the guilt-trip approach; and you humbly recognize that you are not in a position to judge them.

Let a favor be a favor, not a guilt-tinged, calculated script. A favor freely given is worth vastly more than an extracted behavior.


Rule Number Three: Don’t over-specify the favor. “Would you consider writing a review on Amazon?” is a perfectly reasonable statement. Asking that my review contain five stars is just insulting: it implies either that my ratings are for sale, or that I needn’t read the book to determine its value, both of which rankle the would-be favor giver.

“I’m not sure what the right next step would be, but would you mind having a look at Joseph’s resume?” That’s fine.  Compare it to, “I’d appreciate it you’d take Joseph’s phone call and meet with him, just for a half hour or so.” That’s over the line.

(A tour guide on the canal in Bruges, Belgium, after a delightful ride, said to me, “May I remind you the ten-franc tip is not included in the admission price.”).


Rule Number Four: Treat it like a big deal.  Because presumably it is. Which means, you won’t often ask it unless you’ve earned some favors in the favor bank already (see Rule Number One).

And if you have earned some favors – say so. You want to convey very clearly words to the effect of, “I value our relationship; it is strengthened by our mutual collaboration and reciprocal favor-doing. I don’t ask this favor lightly – and I don’t want you to treat it lightly. If you agree you can return this favor to me – or do this favor and I’ll owe you big-time – then we will be that much closer going forward. That’s how I look at this favor; how about you?”

Of course, those are not the words you’ll use; you’ll use words that are right for you.  But they’d better convey that kind of intent.


A favor asked and given is an invitation to a deeper relationship. Don’t be cheap in granting favors; and don’t be promiscuous in asking for them.

Referrals, references, recommendations; all follow another “R” word – reciprocity. What you give, you get. What you don’t give, you won’t get. To get, give. Pay it forward isn’t some dumb movie line – it’s how it all works.

9 replies
  1. ChristopherDowning
    ChristopherDowning says:

    I had a client who’d been through another chaps programme of selling by not selling. In other words, the harder you try to sell, the harder the client will resist you.

    One of the issues he wanted further explanation on was expectations. He’d been told that having expectations of the outcome of a meeting, what a client will say or comiit to was wrong thinking. Obviously this is contra thinking to what most sales managers want from thier sales peopel – they want them to have a business agenda, a plan for a meeting with a client, a list of obectives and outcomes, and what the meeting will deliver in terms of processing a sales agreement.

    However, not having expectations is all about realising that you have no real control over what others will do or decide. Saying you have control of a meeting or what others will do is the inner dialogue of a con artist. In the real World we only have control and dicipline over ourselves. You cannot concentrate your thoughts on building a relationship based on what you want yourself.

    In the end you can only do what is right and ethical in business. It’s the only way to a long term successful future. But it’s a hard one to sell to organisations that want to go short term and close every client, come what may in the longer term.

    Having no expectations allows you to have meaningful conversations that mostly don’t go where you might predict. But they will be about the clients’ priorities and requirements. You just need to convince your boss that sales built on relationships end up bigger and repeat over decades. (Or find a new employer!)

  2. Charles H. Green
    Charles H. Green says:

    Christopher. I could absolutely not agree more. “Expecting” people to do what we want them to do sends subtle signals that we’re trying to control them.  Actually, not so subtle. 

    The result is, as I like to say, “An expectation is a premeditated resentment,” because you’re likely to not get the thing you were ‘expecting’ to get.

    Far better to live in respect for the customer and just assume that if you do the right thing, you’ll get plenty of reciprocation.  As with many things trust, there’s a paradox at work here: to get what you want, give up wanting it. 

  3. Guy Arnold
    Guy Arnold says:

    Fantastic article and comments! Couldn’t agree more. There are far too many people trying to manipulate systems (and social media!). The only way to do business in today’s transparent world is to do it with integrity. 

  4. Peter Vajda
    Peter Vajda says:

    RE: Mhuwith’s comment “…What’s behind my struggle? I’m thinking of the research Dan Ariely did* that shows when we treat  something “economically” the calculus all changes…”

    This makes much sense to me. What the “economics” does is change the energy of the relationship…from warm, to  luke-warm to cold (i.e., in the space between two individuals where relationship happens) and calculating, and creates a deep sense of conscious and/or unconscious discomfort – mentally, emotionally and physiologically which feels and feels “dirty.” How can that dynamic engender the kind of relationship where an honest and sincere favor is asked, or rendered? 

  5. Charlie Green
    Charlie Green says:


    I’ve been waiting for a couple of days to respond to this one, it’s veyr provocative and juicy.

    It’s important to be clear what Ariely’s research means. To me, he’s quite right that if I reduce people to economic value, then I dehumanize them, it all goes to hell, etc. just as you say.

    But that’s the content of economics, not the methodology. The fact that economics measures “balances” and “tit for tat” does NOT mean that everything using balances and tit for tat is economic in nature. We give, and ask for, favors all the time, generating emotional “balances,” and senses of “obligation,” but without the negatives.  Quite the opposite!

    In fact, the mutual, reciprocating, escalating exchange of favors (including not just given, but asked) is what define the deepest of our social bonds.  What is a friend if not someone you gladly do favors for, and to whom you don’t hesitate if you need a favor?  What is it we do in courtship if not repeatedly give and receive?  And with each gift and receipt, we incur a “debt” in the good sense; we feel a sense of gratitude, not resentment – if done right.

    Mutual favors don’t obligate each other in the sense of indentured servitude – they obligate us in the sense of we are glad to have the richness of ties that bind. 

    Properly understood, Ariely’s work indicts not the language of economics per se, but its application to more appropriately emotional aspects of human relations. The day care story is not about quantification, it’s about monetization. As far as pure debt calculation, human feelings are exquisitely attuned to sensing just what kind of gift is appropriate on just what kind of occasion, and that’s as refined as any complex security analysis.  It’s just that it’s about feelings, not money.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Recommended Reading: How (Not) to Ask for Recommendations, Referrals, and References by Charles Green Be Sociable, Share! Tweet Written by Doug Rice Posted in Social […]

  2. […] Recommended Reading: How (Not) to Ask for Recommendations, Referrals, and References by Charles Green Be Sociable, Share! Tweet Written by Doug Rice Posted in […]

  3. […] There are a lot of things wrong with this request for help.  Luckily, Charles H Green (CHG) the famed “Trusted advisor” just wrote a timely post “How (Not) to ask for Recommendations, Referrals and References. […]

  4. […] I’ve included an excerpt of one of his suggested rules below, and you can read the rest here. Rule Number Two: Assume absolutely […]

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *